Suburban sprawl has its critics but self-driving cars may just make long commutes more palatable:
As driving becomes less onerous and computer-controlled systems reduce traffic, some experts worry that will eliminate a powerful incentive—commuting sucks—for living near cities, where urban density makes for more efficient sharing of resources. In other words, autonomous vehicles could lead to urban sprawl.
It’s simple, says Ken Laberteaux, a senior scientist at Toyota. If you make transportation faster, easier and perhaps cheaper, then people won’t mind commuting. “What a consumer is expected to do is see what they can gain by moving a little further from the job centers or the cultural centers,” he says. That’s bad news: Urban sprawl is linked to economic, environmental, and health hardships…
Laberteaux’s not the only one concerned about this. Autonomous vehicles should ease highway congestion, and commuters will be able to catch up on work or sleep en route to the office. That limits the incentive to trade your McMansion for a brownstone, says Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center. The implications of this go beyond transportation; in a 2014 report for advocacy group Smart Growth America, Ewing linked sprawl to obesity and economic immobility.
Ewing likens autonomous driving to the construction of “superhighways” during the post-war boom years, which spurred suburbanization. “If you can travel at higher speeds with less congestion and you can use your time productively while you’re traveling in a self-driving car, the generalized cost of travel will be less on a vehicle-per-mile basis,” says Ewing. “Just like when, before the interstate system, people were traveling at 30 miles per hour, there wasn’t nearly the spread of development that there is today.”
The car is a remarkable invention that with adaptation (oil doesn’t seem to be quite running out, alternative fuel sources, etc.) could be around for a long time. So, perhaps the real answer to limiting sprawl is simply getting rid of cars or finding more and more ways to incentive not owning a car.